Outside my study window, starlings are raucously congregating in an autumn flock. They are preparing to migrate, and when they finally do, flock joins flock to form an unending black ribbon that streams across the evening sky. Estimates indicate that such ribbons can number over 10 million birds.
That's a lot of birds, especially in North America, a latecomer to starlings. Until 1890 there weren't any on the continent. That year 60 were released in New York's Central Park, and the rest is bird-world history. The little has become the big.
Over dinner, I eagerly report these starling facts to my wife and son. Despite my wonderment, they are indifferent. "I guess it's a birder thing," my son comments, and then proposes a question of far greater significance: "Is there any more milk?"
It is a birder thing, and I've been a birder since I was 7 and climbed a white pine tree near our house. High up in the crown I discovered a nest with four robin eggs in their eponymous blue. I was rapt.
Meanwhile, my mother bought a copy of The Golden Guide to Birds. Baby-booming birders, you remember it well: Its cover aptly featured two robins against an eggshell blue wash. Enthralled by the nest and captured by the guide, my fledgling imagination took flight with all 125 species illustrated in its pages.
That was 45 years ago. Since then, through gift and purchase, I have increased my holdings in ornithological paraphernalia. My "ornith-ernalia" currently include 35 guides to birds of North America and the world, eight natural histories, five antique volumes, four miscellanies, one sociological deconstruction of birding, seven facsimiles of Audubon prints, two cassettes of bird songs, one piece of software, five DVDs, two theologies with a birder's twist, two sets of bird plates, 16 songbird coasters, four chickadee mugs, three Christmas ornaments, and a wallpaper frieze decorated with sandpipers, whimbrels, and turnstones. That's a lot of ornith-ernalia. And to think that it all started so small and so long ago.
Therein is wisdom. Mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow- or better, unending ribbons from 60 starlings flow. Our littlest choices can, over time, lead us to big places we never anticipated. That's why, according to Solomon, a prudent person is able to "discern his way" (Proverbs 14:8). Wisdom understands that today's choices, no matter how trivial, set us on a path toward a destination. Our souls are always being formed.
Jesus put it more ominously, and used birds to make the point: "Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather" (Matthew 24:28). Carrion birds spiral down through death's scent to the carcass itself. Effect is due to cause. Evil hatches from evil. A way seems right to a person, but if it is an evil way, its end is death. This is the way God has ordered His world.
It is a mercy, then, for the Sovereign God to put us on alert about our choices. Many choose to ignore this mercy. Our culture is not the first to scoff at God's righteous commandments and afterward throw up its hands when things fall apart. Evil is evil's reward. As Shakespeare said, "The raven doth not hatch a lark."
But larks do hatch larks. Grace is grace's reward. As we respond to God's initiatives, we discover more of them and more capacity to respond. To quote Charles Spurgeon, "The goose that lays the golden egg likes to lay where there are eggs already."
So I guess it makes sense that I read the Golden Guide decades ago and today find myself loading The Life of Birds into the DVD player. Grace leads to grace. By that I don't mean that you should become a birder. Rather, we should respond today to God's grace in the big and the little. In all our ways let us acknowledge Him with obedient faith and expectant hope.
Choose His way in the little, and over time the little will become the big. This is the lesson of both the starling and my ornith-ernalia. This is the way of grace.